Distress Signals

KTCA tried to survive the public TV wars by being bigger and better. Too bad the grants dried up and the talent jumped ship.

Ledbetter says this kind of conservatism, both in terms of public television's mission and the homogenous makeup of its decision-makers, is typical: "This is a problem reflected throughout the entire system. When your resources are depleted and your vision is incomplete, you turn to people who are familiar with mainstream media, people able to get something up and running without risk."

Understandably, Cushman bristles when it's suggested NewsNight is lounging in the shallow end--in part because he knows how hard his co-workers struggle day after day to contribute something above and beyond the call. "I think you see a hell of a lot of diversity on our channel that you don't see on other broadcasts," he says. "I think we give voice to a much more diverse group in terms of race, gender, sexuality, and age than you'll see anywhere in the Twin Cities. Could it be better? Sure. But frankly, whenever we do a show with all white men as guests, I notice it and I think, 'Damn, how did that happen?'"

Hanley predicts NewsNight will incorporate more arts and culture into its studio format. Co-anchor Harvin agrees, saying it's unrealistic to think a nine-person staff can get ahead of the network affiliates or the dailies, so more variety will be essential. He is also certain, after spending two decades as a reporter for KSTP-TV, that NewsNight can still offer viewers a meaningful alternative to the hollow glitz of network news.

Shannon Brady

"The problem is, in the '90s in-depth is synonymous with boring," he says. "But we're taking a risk. We're betting people care about the story behind the headlines."

Harvin's enthusiasm has merit. Even as toned-down from Willis's original vision as today's NewsNight is, the show still garners its share of attention. For his enterprising work concerning downsizing at Unisys Corp., in January co-anchor Ken Stone won a Silver Baton at the Alfred I. duPont-Columbia University Awards. Only 10 other journalists were so honored, including NBC news anchor Tom Brokaw and 60 Minutes host Ed Bradley.

Hanley calls the Unisys series a shining example of NewsNight at its best. Cushman says the award's prestige speaks for itself. De Sam Lazaro believes it proves NewsNight is "making an impact."

Skeptics rightly point out that Stone's Unisys work was done in the field, an aesthetic NewsNight is replacing with everything from documentary footage excerpted from PBS programs to musical guests; which begs the question, why not throw up a nightly arts program or a magazine show designed to exploit these very elements? Already each night's broadcast is being centered around an individual topic area so that extensive studio discussions can be formulated around one or two shorter pieces of tape.

Over the next few months, Cushman believes the program must evolve into a cross between Nightline and Charlie Rose--a talk show that can follow the news without having to count on enterprise reporting. Because even if NewsNight gets a stay of execution from Blandin, Hanley and Pagliarini have made it clear its beleaguered crew won't be relieved by fresh bodies. They must learn to live with less.

As Wurzer puts it, "radio with pictures."

DON'T BELIEVE the Hype is a 6-year-old project coordinated by KTCA's community-affairs unit. Funded in the past by Honeywell, the Minneapolis Foundation, Pillsbury, and others, this year Hype is living off a $150,000 grant from St. Paul Companies.

The gist is simple, the results refreshingly complex. A group of kids from diverse backgrounds get together on camera to talk about the challenges facing urban minorities; no censors, no agendas, no "guest experts." The Hype crew produces between one and three specials a year to be aired on TCPT. In between, the show's more than 20 teenage participants are involved in media education, community projects, and educational outreach to public schools. Last year, two Hype trainees traveled to Washington, D.C., to participate in Vice President Al Gore's "Violence in the Media" conference.

Prompted by Hype Producer Daniel Bergin and Robin Hickman, manager of community-affairs production at TCPT, NewsNight agreed to incorporate Hype into its lineup. During the next year, using money not from the station's core budget but from St. Paul Companies, young trainees will produce between 10 and 12 feature stories to be aired on NewsNight.

On this afternoon, Hype members James Everett, Kou Her, Noel Lee, and Nkauj'lis Lyfoung are meeting in a KTCA conference room with Bergin, just down the hall from NewsNight's embattled offices. Their spontaneity is a welcome counterpoint to the adult world's workaday woes. In a week the four of them will be out with video cameras taping their first NewsNight segment, so Bergin's helping them formulate questions and coordinate shoots at three different area high schools. Within a month, assuming everything goes as planned, Twin Cities viewers will see a story on English as a second language, as told by those closest to the process.

"I'm excited as these young people prepare their first story," says Hickman. "It's historic. If we had the money for public relations I'd be on a media blitz."

Unfettered by station politics, happy just to be a part of KTCA's production schedule, Everett, Her, Lee, and Lyfoung see NewsNight through a different, unclouded lens. They see it as an opportunity. They also know their participation can help broaden the show's scope, at least for a few nights a year.

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